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What Can Today's Enterpreneurs Learn From India's Past
By Sanjeev Nayyar, June 2005 []

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“According to current findings the India-China region was producing around 73 per cent of the industrial manufactures of the world around 1750. Even in 1830 its industrial production is estimated at 60 per cent of world manufactures”. (Rediscovering India by Dharampal). Around 1000 BC Baudhayana had discovered the so-called Pythagoras theorem. Aryabhata, born in Patna, dealt with advanced astronomy & involution of area & volume, progressions & algebraic identities etc.

There are numerous examples of India’s prowness in the areas of science and trade. Having said that no nation can afford to live in the past but has to earn its stripes on an ongoing basis. Yet, nearly 24% live in poverty and India’s share in world trade has fallen continuously (1950: 1.29%, 1970: 0.68%, 1990: 0.52%, 2000: 0.67%).

Surely our ancestors did something right! The purpose of this article is to peep into the past and cherry pick some learning’s that could be followed by today’s entrepreneurs.

a. We must welcome globalization. What we tend to forget is that India was amongst the most globalized nations. She exported spices to Europe, music to Japan, Buddhism to China. Few know of Angkor Watt in Cambodia. Built around 1115 a.d. and dedicated to Lord Vishnu it is the world’s largest religious construction in stone occupying a rectangular area of 500 acres.

At a time when air and train travel were unthinkable Indians reached distant lands. There was a strong desire to create and share with the world. We need to globalize with vengeance, on our terms though!

Globalization can have four forms. One is exporting abroad. This could be done through manufacturing facilities within or outside India. Two is acquiring assets abroad that supply raw materials to group companies in India e.g. Aditya Birla’s group acquired mining companies in Australia and Canada. Three is acquiring companies abroad that would not only export technology to the Indian company but also become a vehicle for marketing Indian products e.g. Tatas took over the heavy vehicle business of Daewoo in South Korea and subsequently launched Star Bus using Daewoo technology. Four – just like the U.S.A. exports the American way of life through its consumer products & Hollywood we must export the Indian way of life through Ayurveda, Bollywood and Spirituality. The success of Yoga in the U.S.A. indicates this is happening. Yet individual drive needs to be supplemented by a corporatised effort at sustained brand building.

India prospered through continuous interaction with the world.

While globalizing Indian companies must remember that even after hundreds of years citizens of Japan, Korea etc appreciate India’s contribution to their civilization. To this day some Indonesian currency notes have Lord Ganesha printed on them. The key is ‘Taking care of local sensibilities’. Indian companies must be seen as job & wealth creators. The Indian Diaspora has rarely come in conflict with the local population. Indian companies must emulate their example. 

b. “From times immemorial, the great aims of human endeavor have been classified in India as dharma, artha, kama and moksha roughly translated as moral behavior, wealth, worldly pleasures and salvation”. (Kautilya The Arthashastra by L N Rangarajan). While Artha has a much wider significance than merely wealth, the material well being of individuals was a part of it. Profit was important, what mattered was how it was earned and spent.  

Ironically making profit/being rich were dirty words for nearly the first fifty years after Independence. A person criticized accumulation of wealth but simultaneously worshipped Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth.

As a nation we must single-mindedly focus on Wealth Creation. With time its benefits would percolate downwards to the poorer sections of society. Also, the rich should share a larger % of their wealth with the less fortunate. Idealistic as it may sound, the change can happen when attitude changes from ‘What is in this for Me’ to ‘What is it that I can do for You’. 

c. Indian philosophy relies on direct vision of truths and pure reasoning. There are nine schools of philosophy divided into two groups ie Astika and Nastika. The former include Nyaya, Vaisheshik, Sakhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. The latter include Bauddha, Jaina and Carvaka.

Can we think of any other country that has nine schools of thought? Although each school of philosophy is unique, all of them have certain common characteristics e.g. open mindedness, direct experience, support of logic and reasoning. What made Indians of those times so creative?

When a follower of one school uses the power of reason to convince another then he has to first listen to another’s viewpoint patiently, use his intellect to find fault in that argument and lastly articulate his viewpoint convincingly. To do so the person needs to have an open mind and be a good listener. The debating process stimulates thought.

The heart of this process lies in two human traits, Humility and Intellect (is the ability to distinguish between what is right and wrong).

When translated into the world of business it means a Company should be innovative, willing to learn, employee friendly, invest in research and believe there is always a better way of meeting consumer needs

Unfortunately there was a period when creativity was stifled. Sri Aurobindo wrote: “Our first necessity, if India is to survive and do her appointed work in the world, is that the youth of India should learn to think, - to think on all subjects, to think independently, fruitfully, going to the heart of things, not stopped by their surface, free of prejudgments, shearing sophism and prejudice asunder as with a sharp sword, smiting down obscurantism of all kinds as with the mace of Bhima…”. (India’s Rebirth).

d. Various schools of Indian thought believed direct experience is the key to self-realization.  This implies that every person has a unique nature based on which he needs to find out the path to self-realization.

When translated to a country level we must realize that India’s problems, people and economy are unique. We criticize India’s economic performance vs. China’s without comparing the social/economic ground realities e.g. Special Economic Zones have done well in China but are yet to make an impact in India.

At the same time we must acknowledge China’s success in attracting FDI & building Infrastructure but to talk of Shanghai’s multi storeyed marvels without referring to huge NPA’s runs by its banks is an attempt to lower the self-esteem of the Indian people.

Benchmarking with other countries is good but better; use positive creative energy to find unique solutions for India.

e. India attracted students from the world e.g. Nalanda university in Bihar attracted, amongst others, Chinese in large numbers. They came to study Indian philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Constant exchange of ideas stimulated thought. The community funded education and its purpose was gaining/sharing of knowledge.

Conversely, today education is a passport to a Job, provided by an increasingly resource scarce government and private institutions. Due to our socialist beliefs the latter are discouraged from making profits meaning there is not enough investment to meet India’s burgeoning education needs. No wonder schools from U.S.A, U.K., Australia, and New Zealand are wooing Indian students!

We have failed to realize the impact of students going abroad. According to, “India sent more students to study in the U.S.A. than any other country in the 2001-02 academic year, according to a study released by Institute of International Education in Washington. The total number of Indian students is 66,836”. If each parent remitted an average of Rs 15 lakhs p.a. roughly Rs 10,000 crs was remitted every year. If only we allow corporates to run postgraduate educational institutions students can avail of international quality education in India.  It is easier for corporates to attract NRI professors, researchers and scientists. 

Corporatization will succeed if we have a transparent regulatory framework for the education sector managed by an All India Regulator. Then, India might become a preferred education destination once again.

Having said that corporatization of education is yet to take off in the U.S. 'Public education in the United States provides an example. The country spends more than $350 billion of public funds on primary and secondary education, which is widely thought to have fallen behind public education in other developed countries. Privatizing the provision of education is a possible solution. At present, only 4 percent of the spending goes to schools run for profit by private companies, but that proportion is expected to grow by 13 percent a year. At the end of the present decade, around 10 percent of all primary and secondary schools will probably be under for-profit management, suggesting a market worth almost $80 billion”.(‘Controversy Incorporated’ by David Cogman & Jeremy M Oppenheim, The Mckinsey Quarterly, 2002 number 4).

How can one explain the success of non-resident Indians in the U.S.? Says Subhash Kak, Professor in the Asian Studies and Cognitive Science Programs, Louisiana State University, “NRIs have done well in the West because the West has institutions that reward excellence, whereas India is mired in sloppy socialist notions”.

The purpose of education must be reoriented to teaching the Power of Concentration. If a student spends one hour daily learning how to concentrate passing exams would be easy. Further it would result in self-control, better focus and eventually higher productivity at work.

f. Lastly India’s future is intertwined with the status/respect accorded to her women. She will progress faster if a larger number

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